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Circuit Breaker

Huawei’s HiKey 960 is a high-end alternative to the Raspberry Pi

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Right now the most powerful ARM-based computers available to consumers are Chromebooks. The Raspberry Pi is a great deal and all, and a fully functional $35 Linux desktop, but it's vastly less powerful than what most of us would deem acceptable for web browsing and actual work.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Every flagship phone released these days has performance challenging that of a ultraportable laptop, at least in pure processing speed, and Huawei has just made the relatively obvious choice to sell its smartphone SoC (system on a chip) as a tiny little Linux computer.

Huawei's $239 HiKey 960 board, as spotted by PCWorld, is based on its octa-core Kirin 960 chip, which has four high-end Cortex-A73 cores, and four low-power Cortex-A53 cores. It's the same chip that ships inside the Huawei Mate 9. It's not exactly on a level with the Snapdragon 835, but it's at least a relevant option in the high-end phone space. The board will be compatible with multiple versions of Linux in the future, in addition to Android.

One of the big limitations of using phone innards for "real" computers is the shortage of RAM, and the typically slow speeds of the RAM. The HiKey 960 has 3GB of LPDDR4 RAM, which isn't great, but it's a big step up over what was available even a year ago, speed-wise. As for graphics, Kirin’s GPU has enough power for 4K output, but the board's HDMI port only supports 1080p output.

The board has 40-pin and 60-pin connectors for attaching hardware like cameras, but I'm especially interested in the PCIe M.2 slot, which should make it easy to add a faster SSD to augment the 32GB of onboard storage.

The ideal use case for the HiKey is for developers working on ARM-based software, like Android apps. Currently most development is done on traditional x86 hardware, and then cross compiled to ARM, and this can help bridge the gap between development and testing. But there's a larger movement in the Linux world to build a full-fledged ARM-powered desktop for general use, and this is a nice step in that direction.